Can Obama Please Both Arabs and Israelis?

The citizens of the Middle East aren't looking for lofty speeches -- they want U.S. support for their preferred policies.

A few months ago, I appeared on a popular Egyptian television talk show -- al-Qahira al-Youm -- that addressed front-page stories in the press. One of the questions I was asked surprised me. The Egyptian press had apparently translated a Washington Post article about President Barack Obama's private spiritual life and his regular consultation with Christian ministers. Seemingly alarmed, the host asked me to provide comment. Immediately, I saw where the question was headed. During the George W. Bush's presidency, there was considerable focus, at home and abroad, on Bush's Christian faith and the role of evangelicals in U.S. foreign policy. This played squarely into the hands of those Muslims who preferred to frame foreign-policy issues as a struggle between Islam and the "crusaders," and Obama seemed to provide a fresh start. But could Obama be instead a closet evangelical Christian?

It was not hard to deal with the question on Egyptian TV, pointing out that all presidents benefit from being recognized as men of faith and that being a Christian in the United States does not automatically provide predictions of your Middle East policy -- as is well-demonstrated by perhaps the most religious U.S. president of the 20th century, Jimmy Carter. But the very fact that this issue had to be addressed in the Arab media was itself an indication of the times, of the decline in Arab public opinion of a president who a year ago opened many hearts and minds even before he delivered a memorable and historic speech in Cairo.

It was also a reminder of how frequently the discourse about U.S. foreign policy produces blinding fog. Even among the many who never bought that Obama's Muslim father or his childhood years in a Muslim-majority country had predictable impact on his Middle East policy, some assumed that many Arabs and Muslims were bound to evaluate him on these terms. While people are bound to use any fragment of information to assess the outlook of a political leader, in the end everyone is looking for policy clues on issues that matter to them. Obama's personal history provided some early positive clues to most Arabs and Muslims -- and negative ones to Israelis -- but only as possible indicators of policy.

There is no indication that Arabs ever embraced Obama simply because of who he is. It was always about issues, not about his personal background. During the presidential campaign, in April and May of 2008, I asked a question about attitudes toward the three remaining candidates, Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton, in a poll conducted with Zogby International in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. "Who is best suited to advance Middle East peace?" Not surprisingly, McCain, whose campaign was speaking of an "Islamo-Fascist" threat, received the nod from a mere 3 percent of those polled. Clinton was favored by 13 percent and Obama by 18 percent -- separated by an amount that was not much above the margin of error. A plurality said "none of the above." This was not about Arabs seeing Obama as a "secret Muslim."

By the time Obama delivered the Cairo speech in June 2009, polls were already showing remarkable openness toward the new U.S. president. In a University of Maryland/Zogby poll conducted in April and May 2009, a plurality of the Arabs surveyed had a favorable view of Obama, while a majority expressed optimism about the prospects of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The two measures were inevitably tied. But what might not have been clear to observers is that the former was more a function of the later -- not the other way around.

Certainly, there was something of "anything but Bush" in Arab attitudes, after several years of George W. Bush being identified as the most disliked leader in the world among Arabs polled in the six countries. There was also the puzzlement about Americans electing an African-American president -- something many Arabs and others around the world hadn't believed could happen. But more than anything else, it was about the issues. They liked Obama's opposition to the Iraq war and his stated intent to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, as well as his opposition to torture and the Guantánamo Bay prison -- which many in the region saw as particularly aimed at Arabs and Muslims -- and they were heartened by his emphasis on the importance of the Arab-Israeli issue.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, Arabs never embraced Obama. In the spring 2009 poll, the overwhelming majority of those who had a favorable view of Obama expressed only a "somewhat favorable view," and in Egypt a significant number of those polled were neutral about him. And in the annual open question, "Whom among world leaders do you admire most?", Obama's name was not among the top choices. It was always about policy, and the public was adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Like any people around the world, Arabs care about many things. But they view Washington through a limited set of issues. To most Arabs, the United States is an anchor of a political order they do not like, in all its manifestations -- authoritarianism, the declining global influence of Arab countries, the Iraq war, the war on terrorism, and the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But they don't rank issues equally when they evaluate U.S. foreign policy. And nothing ranks higher than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

We really didn't need polls to see that the mood in the region has shifted in the past year, as many experts or frequent visitors would have heard an earful on this issue with most of the complaints focused on the Israeli Palestinian issue. Certainly, in the 2010 UMD/Zogby poll, 61 percent of polled Arabs identified the Arab-Israeli conflict as the issue they are disappointed with the most in Obama's foreign policy. Obama's new tone toward Islam and Muslims was identified as the most positive policy issue, but only by 20 percent. The net result was a remarkable change in attitudes toward Obama from 45 percent favorable in 2009 to only 20 percent in 2010.

In sorting out the fog of multiple issues, it is instructive to look at how Arabs have reacted to world leaders over the past several years. One case is particularly striking. In 2004 and 2005, French President Jacques Chirac, a leader of a firmly secular Western country with a colonial history in the Arab world, was named by polled Arabs as the single most popular leader in the world. This happened even as the controversy over wearing the veil in French schools was raging, and trouble was brewing within France's immigrant communities, many of which are Arab. The Arab public was prepared to look the other way and reward Chirac for two deeds: first, his hosting of gravely ill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and treating him as head of state -- showing a degree of respect that Arafat certainly was not getting from the Bush administration. Second was Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war. Even popular Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi could not bring himself to criticize the French policy on the veil when confronted by questions from viewers on Al Jazeera TV.

It is something of a myth that Arabs ever embraced President Bill Clinton as much as Israelis did, though at some point they warmed up to him. Certainly, this was not the case in the early months before the Oslo agreements were signed, when Clinton was most often identified as "the most pro-Israel president ever." Clinton continued to be viewed by Arabs as pro-Israel even in the most optimistic periods, including when he gave a historic speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza. Arabs and others around the world simply assumed after Oslo that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was on its way to a resolution. But this changed after the collapse of the negotiations at Camp David in July 2000, which is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks at the dedication of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in April, contrasted global attitudes in the 1990s with the trends in the past year in this way:

[O]ne of the striking experiences that I had becoming secretary of state and now having traveled something on the order of 300,000 miles in the last 15 months and going to dozens and dozens of countries, is that when I compare that to my experience as first lady, where I was also privileged to travel around the world, back in the '90s when I went to Asia or Africa or Europe or Latin America, it was rare that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was raised. Now it is the first, second, or third item on nearly every agenda of every country I visit. 


By the time the 2000 American presidential election season arrived, Arabs were heavily rooting against Bill Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, and strongly favoring his Republican opponent, George W. Bush, whose father's administration was seen as more responsive to their interests. It took Arabs but a few months to start missing Bill Clinton. It was never about individuals, or style, or promises. It isn't today.

And it's not any different for the Israelis.

Israelis were not so threatened by who Barack Obama was, as much as by the implications of the policies he advocated, which threatened a worldview they had adopted over the past decade. Yes, they rooted against Obama throughout the U.S. presidential campaign -- even before they learned about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- according to a panel brought together by Haaretz, and early attitudes were primarily based on the absence of information about his positions toward Israel. The convener of the panel even speculated that there might have been an implicit stereotyping that perhaps Obama being an African-American may make him more sympathetic toward the underdog Palestinians. But early attitudes change quickly: Israelis rooted for Gore/Lieberman passionately and against Bush/Cheney -- just the opposite of initial Arab instincts. But that didn't last long. Bush supported the tough Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, especially after 9/11, and became a favorite leader among Israelis who quickly forgot what they had wished for in the U.S. elections.

Had Obama visited Israel in his early months and delivered a powerful speech akin to the one he delivered in Cairo, it might have bought him a brief period of goodwill -- very brief. For at the core of Israeli concerns is something bigger than even the approach to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. It is the entire foreign policy paradigm of the Obama administration: stripping references to Islam from the war on terrorism; relying on multilateralism, international organizations and law; and certainly articulating that Arab-Israeli peace is an American interest. Israelis had grown comfortable and secure in Bush's world, which emphasized unilateralism, linked Islam and terrorism in the American discourse, and, in practice, de-emphasized the Arab-Israeli issue for much of the time.

Beneath all the tough talk, the nuclear weapons, the conventional superiority, and the occupation, is a deeply insecure Israeli nation. This insecurity defines the outlook of most Israelis from right to left especially in times of crisis. In the 1990s, there was a sense -- particularly after the Oslo agreement -- that history had finally ended: The United States had won the Cold War, and Israel, in effect, had won the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on its way to resolution. Most Arabs, Israelis, and others around the world, including those who didn't like the projected ending, still saw it as inevitable -- which is why first lady Hillary Clinton was hearing few voices focused on the Arab-Israeli issue during that period. All that changed after the collapse of the peace negotiations in 2000, the rise of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, and, yes, the fear that 9/11 generated for Israelis.

Two things resulted. The first was that the escalation in violence not only brought destruction and death to Palestinians and Israelis, but also that the Israeli body politic saw in the escalation an "existential crisis." In large part, this crisis was due to the increase in suicide bombings during that period and to the Palestinians' ability to galvanize Arab, Muslim, and other support around the world in a manner that was seemingly absent during the 1990s and was thought to have disappeared. The second was 9/11 itself, which above all raised real fears in Israel that perhaps the United States would conclude that the horrific attack on American soil should be blamed on U.S. support for Israel.

The emergent interpretation adopted by the Bush administration, "they hate us for our values," was thus welcome music in Israel. Whether Israelis fully believed this interpretation or not, it reassured Israelis of U.S. support. And it is this framing that is being unraveled by the Obama administration as it seeks to reach out to Muslims and attempts to transform the zero-sum mindset among Arabs and Israelis in the pursuit of a negotiated peace settlement.

Yet, despite the U.S. mediation efforts from the start of the Obama administration, Arabs and Israelis remain in effect in a zero-sum mood. This is captured by the pervasive pessimism about the outcome of the negotiations with majorities of polled Arabs expressing the view that the two-state solution will never happen. Yes, people would be happy to be surprised, but their bet is on failure. And when diplomatic failure occurs, conflict escalates and each side wants to prepare solid alliances for the morning after. The role of the United States is seen to a large extent from that perspective: Whose side will the United States take when it all falls apart? And every signal the United States sends of reaching out to one side will anger the other. There is no way around this dilemma at this point.

But there really was never a way around it. There was hardly any public preparation or trust between Israelis and Egyptians before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat undertook his historic visit to Jerusalem and before an actual agreement was signed. Even when Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin went to Camp David in 1978, each side was prepared to leave with no peace agreement at all as long as they consolidated their relations with the United States at the expense of the other. Only after an agreement was reached did their attitudes toward each other and toward the U.S. role change.

The same could be said about the Oslo agreement. No public trust existed between Israelis and Palestinians and no serious preparation to change attitudes was in place. But once an agreement was reached and backed by the United States, attitudes changed -- and the Palestinians warmed up to Bill Clinton and U.S. mediation.

The Arab-Israeli conflict remains the central prism through which both Arabs and Israelis will continue to evaluate U.S. foreign policy, and almost everything else will be seen through that narrow prism. One can do a lot of good on a lot of other issues, but don't expect to score any points.

For the Obama administration, winning the Arab and Israeli publics at the same time is at this point nearly impossible without a genuine diplomatic breakthrough. It is too late to make mere promises, to win even a window of time through words or deeds on issues that are not as central in regional perceptions. But as history -- and the polls -- show, publics come around in an instant once a transformative agreement is put under their noses.

All this means one thing to the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts: Put aside Arab and Israeli public opinion for the moment. Just build an agreement and they will come. 

AFP/Getty Images


How to Leave Afghanistan Without Losing

Regional diplomacy could be more than just a buzzword -- if the United States would do the right thing.

As prospects for an early U.S.-NATO military victory in Afghanistan fade and pressures for the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces grow, the debate over U.S. policy in Afghanistan focuses increasingly on one key issue: Is it possible to negotiate terms for disengagement that would not constitute a strategic defeat?

Advocates of staying the course equate any conceivable disengagement scenario with surrender to the Taliban. But elementary geopolitical arithmetic suggests an exit strategy that would contain Taliban influence after U.S. combat forces depart. Six of the seven neighboring regional powers with a stake in Afghanistan's future -- Russia, Iran, India, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- share the U.S. goal of preventing the return of a Taliban dictatorship in Kabul. Only one, Pakistan, which helped install and sustain the Taliban regime that ruled from 1996 to 2001, wants to see it back in power.

Iran, Russia, India, and Tajikistan all played a key role in helping U.S. forces dislodge the Taliban in 2001. More importantly, all of them, together with China and Uzbekistan, fear that a resurrected Taliban regime would foment Islamist insurgencies within their own borders. Russia faces nascent Islamist forces in its Muslim south. India worries that Taliban control in Kabul would lead to an upsurge in Pakistan-based terrorism. The Shiite theocracy in Iran fears that a Taliban regime would help the Sunni Jundullah separatist movement in Iranian Baluchistan and Salafi extremists in other regions. Tajikistan faces Sunni extremist groups led by Hizb ut-Tahrir and is increasingly unsettled by an influx of Afghan refugees, which could grow if the Taliban were to return to power. China is beset by Islamist Uighur separatists in Xinjiang.

The math is so obvious that "regional diplomacy" has become a fashionable buzzword in Afghanistan discussions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed a regional conference in March 2009 that would have included Iran, and Henry Kissinger has called for a diplomatic push to mobilize the support of neighboring states, which he said will be threatened "more than we are by the emergence of a base for international terrorism" in Afghanistan.

But these proposals implicitly assume that the United States would remain in the driver's seat in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the regional neighbors have no desire to legitimate an enduring U.S. presence in the country -- particularly with regards to the U.S. air bases now being used for intelligence surveillance missions in areas of Afghanistan bordering Russia, China, and Iran. Huge base expansion programs under way indicate that the U.S. Air Force plans to stay in Afghanistan even if the Army and the Marines pull out, and a readiness to phase out these programs would be necessary to set the stage for a viable regional exit strategy. This would require a firm stand by Barack Obama's administration in the face of Pentagon opposition, but it is the key to mobilizing the regional backing necessary for the containment of the Taliban.

The first step would be a U.N. diplomatic initiative designed to get the regional neighbors to join in a multilateral agreement providing for the military neutralization of Afghanistan and for sustained regional support as the country stabilizes. The agreement would set a timetable providing not only for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO combat forces within three years, but also for the termination of U.S. military access to bases in Afghanistan, including air bases, within five years.

In conjunction with the disengagement process, the agreement would set in motion U.N.-brokered peace negotiations. The Taliban has long demanded a disengagement timetable as the precondition for peace. Ironically, however, its emotional appeal comes primarily from its role as the standard-bearer of opposition to foreign forces. Thus, when and if the United States does present a timetable, it will be cut down to size. The Taliban will be in a strong bargaining position, but only as the dominant force in the ethnically Pashtun south and east of the country. 

The focus of peace negotiations could then be redirected from the terms for power sharing with the Taliban in Kabul to the nature and degree of the power to be ceded to the Taliban in its Pashtun strongholds.

This approach is likely to get Pakistani blessing as the best deal available under present circumstances. Islamabad's leading strategist on Afghanistan, former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan, suggested such a shift in focus in a Washington meeting on June 17, observing that the Taliban has "important regional influences where they should be accommodated." He specified Khost and Paktia as examples of provinces where Taliban control might have to be accepted, and he implied that Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, had explored such arrangements in their two Kabul meetings in early June.  

If it is the price for keeping his hold on the presidency, Karzai might be prepared to accept Taliban control over some local strongholds. This would be facilitated by constitutional reforms strengthening provincial autonomy. The Taliban is likely to condition a settlement on a formal devolution of power that would give the provinces partial or complete control over the police, the courts, local elections, taxation, and opium production.

This would not be a de facto partition, as some have suggested, but rather a shift to a loose federation, similar to the model that prevailed under the pre-1970 monarchy. The provinces under Taliban rule would have a significant stake in stable relations with Kabul as a source of foreign aid for dams, roads, and other economic infrastructure projects.

From the perspective of the United States and its allies, an acceptable U.N.-brokered neutralization agreement would have to bar the use of the Taliban provinces for transnational terrorist activities, place limits on the size and character of the local militias maintained by the Taliban, and rule out the development of local air forces. So long as Kabul has a monopoly on air power, the use of the Taliban provinces as bases for terrorism could be combated and a devolution of power need not mean the breakup of the Afghan state.

Afghanistan's neighbors would be more likely to help contain the Taliban under a U.N.-brokered agreement than under wartime conditions in which they want to avoid identification with an unpopular U.S. military presence. The close intelligence cooperation between the United States, Iran, Russia, and India that existed in 2001 could be revived and broadened to keep the Taliban from pursuing power in Kabul again. Equally important, the agreement could lead to coordinated aid efforts and could encourage the neighbors to increase their economic assistance. These partners are more likely to provide large-scale aid if helping out strengthens their own influence in Kabul rather than merely reinforces a U.S.-dominated regime.

Iran and India, which are already giving large-scale economic aid to Kabul, might well increase their assistance packages if U.S.-NATO aid diminishes. Li Qinggong, deputy secretary-general of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, alluded to increased Chinese aid in a Sept. 29, 2009, statement, which also envisioned talks on "how to dispose of the forces of al-Qaeda" if and when the United States disengages. Beijing is investing $3 billion in Afghanistan's Aynak copper mine and is considering a U.S. request for help in police training. Russia has already opened negotiations with Kabul on a $1 billion package of projects to refurbish 140 Soviet-era hydroelectric stations, bridges, wells, and irrigation systems.

The proposed agreement would be signed by the seven neighbors, the United States, and NATO but could also include others, notably Saudi Arabia, that are playing a significant role in Afghanistan. Signatories would pledge to respect the country’s military neutrality, not to provide arms to warring factions and to co-operate in U.N. enforcement of an arms aid ban.

No U.N. monitoring system could completely seal off arms aid to the rival Afghan factions or bring an end to the competition between India and Pakistan for influence in Kabul. But a structure for regional cooperation could moderate arms inputs and reduce conflict among rival factions.

The most difficult issue in negotiating such an agreement would be how to deal with the status of the Durand Line, the de facto eastern boundary of Afghanistan imposed by Britain in 1893. The Durand Line has never been accepted by Afghanistan, and Pakistan would undoubtedly press for its confirmation as a key condition for its participation in a regional neutralization accord. However, this would be unacceptable to key Afghan political factions, including the Taliban, and a compromise finessing the issue would be necessary.

To be sure, Islamabad would not like an agreement that leaves the boundary issue in abeyance and legitimizes the role of India as a power broker in Afghanistan. But Islamabad would have two powerful reasons for joining in the accord. First, India, like other signatories, would be barred from operating out of Afghanistan militarily in the event of an India-Pakistan conflict and from using Afghanistan as a base for supporting Baluch and other ethnic insurgents in Pakistan. Second, while the accord would seek to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing control in Kabul and using its local strongholds as a base for terrorist operations elsewhere, it would not seek to remove all Taliban influence in Afghanistan. Thus, Pakistan would still have political allies in future Afghan power struggles.

Pressure from China, which provides Islamabad with fighter aircraft, would also help assure Pakistani participation in a regional accord.

The biggest obstacle to the accord is not likely to come from Pakistan, but from a Pentagon mindset in which the projection of U.S. power is viewed as a desirable end in of itself. Some of the 74 U.S. bases in Afghanistan, including airfields, are designed solely for counterinsurgency operations and might be expendable in a neutralization accord. But the mammoth airfields at Bagram and Kandahar are projected to grow in the years ahead -- ambitious new construction projects continue at both bases, despite Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing troops from the country in the summer of 2011. Furthermore, Congress is considering funding requests, totaling $300 million, to establish new bases at Camp Dwyer and Shindand, close to the Iranian border, and Mazar-e-Sharif, near Central Asia and Russia. Aware of Afghan opposition to "permanent bases," Pentagon and White House officials now speak of "permanent access," which would guarantee the use of these bases for intelligence surveillance operations.

The underlying issue that the President has yet to address is the future of the air bases, and the larger question of whether the Pentagon will still be using Afghanistan to further its global power projection goals long after the Taliban and Al Qaeda are a distant memory. Until he faces up to this issue, no diplomatic cover for U.S. disengagement will be possible.

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